In Netflix’s ‘Away,’ Hilary Swank’s Gotta Leave This Doomed Earth to Save This Doomed Earth
Show-runner Jessica Goldberg grounded her gripping ode to space exploration in realism—so the cast went to space camp and the show is, at times, a slow-simmering body horror.
What is it about space? The black, starry void is a singularly vexing backdrop; it evokes endless possibility and terrifying nothingness all at once. We love to watch celebrities scream in space, contemplate fictional long-lost loved ones in space, and, of course, mull the very real existential doom that faces our planet in space.
Enter Netflix’s Away—a gripping drama that embraces this galaxy of thematic potential while also grounding its action in reality. Oh, and its lead is a powerful, multi-faceted Hilary Swank—whose tenacity brings the show’s stakes to life in visceral, at times unsettling ways. In other words: If ya like space stuff, you’re not going to want to miss this one. And even if you don’t, there’s a lot more to love as well.
Show-runner Jessica Goldberg knew going in that she wanted to Away to feel real. Everything seen in the series either actually happened or is at least possible based on what we know. That said, some conjecture was required; after all, the whole show revolves around our determined Swanksternaut’s quest to be the first commander to land a team of astronauts on Mars—a feat humanity has not actually accomplished yet.
“She was really one of the first [people] that we thought of,” Goldberg said of Swank in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. “For me, it was just so important that you believe—whoever we cast—that you believe they really could go to space.”
Swank’s spirited performances in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry evoked an intensity and rigor that left Goldberg convinced. And in a moment of kismet, Swank revealed during her interview with producers that she’d once dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
“I always feel like there’s that perfect person for you,” Goldberg said. “She came in the door and it was something that she had dreamt of, too.”
Away was loosely inspired by an Esquire article that tracked astronaut Scott Kelly’s one-year space mission simulating a trip to the Red Planet. The show finds Swank’s character, Emma Logan, and an international team of four embarking on a three-year mission to prove, among other things, that agriculture is possible on Mars. (For those already wondering: Yes, there’s some overlap with The Martian, but the echoes are pretty faint.)
In Goldberg’s hands, space is an all-encompassing wonder—a cruel abyss that can take your life in seconds but, at other times, can be impossibly beautiful. As everything about human life on Earth seems to crumble around us, it is admittedly comforting to launch into this series for a while—into a world where humanity’s aspirations and capacity for teamwork actually outweigh our selfishness. For all the months Emma Logan and her team spend away from Earth, Away never lets you forget just how vital they all believe their work is to saving the people who inhabit it.
And as we track the astronauts’ progress, we also observe how Emma’s family copes on Earth; her husband, Matt (Josh Charles), is a NASA engineer who is disabled after a stroke, and her teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman), begins to rebel under stress.
In addition to a week-long space camp, the show’s ensemble cast also had to learn their way around wire work for zero-gravity scenes. (Mark Ivanir, who plays the delightfully sardonic Russian astronaut Misha Popov, had a bit of an advantage when it came to wire work, thanks to his background as a circus performer.) One fun fact Goldberg picked up as her cast learned to move as though their bodies are not bound by gravity? “The more pilates you do, the easier it is to be in Zero-G.”
Goldberg—who wrote for Parenthood before creating Hulu’s The Path—was not much of a space buff before. But now she gabs about it over dinner with anyone who will listen. “I’m talking about like, you know, the soil on Mars—what’s in it,” she said. “My conversations have completely changed, but there was so much research too, so much reading.”
Former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino served as a consultant on Away and Chris Jones, who wrote the Esquire article, also joined the writers’ room. (Massimino also had a cameo in the show.) Goldberg said NASA itself also provided significant help—at least partially because they believed the series could spark interest in space and robotics programs among young people.
It’s not surprising that NASA saw the potential in this series to inspire enthusiasm for space studies among young people. Away is, at its very core, a story about inspiration. Emma Logan is a fiercely driven character who sacrifices pretty much everything to lead this mission, even as her husband lies in the hospital and her daughter begs her to come back from the moon. Each astronaut’s resolve wavers at times as they face terrifying near-death experiences—and chunks of their feet falling off—but their determination to make discoveries that could one day save mankind from itself is certainly a message that resonates now, given... everything.
That aspirational quality was one of two things that spoke to Goldberg about this story from the start. The other was Emma Logan herself, and what the character represents. So often, she said, working mothers can be portrayed as bumbling or incapable on-screen. But Emma Logan felt like the real deal.
“We love our jobs; we love our children,” Goldberg said. “There’s a lot of push and pull [in the show]. There’s a lot of conflict in it. There’s badness in it. But that you can be a person who does both of these things and navigates them—the opportunity to show that kind of character felt really exciting to me.”
Goldberg has a daughter who just turned 13—so she knows a thing or two about that balancing act.
But the show’s real heart forms when all five astronauts coalesce as one unit—a team that often disagrees but, ultimately, must overcome their disagreements and tensions to survive the impossible.
Ivanir shines as Misha, whose stubborn impatience slowly gives way to a softer, emoji-loving side. (Ivanir’s joke pitches were apparently so good he wound up writing many of his own.) Ato Essandoh brings warmth and quiet humor as Kwesi, a botany expert born in Ghana and raised in Great Britain, and Ray Panthaki absolutely smolders as the Indian medic Ram—the ship’s main source of empathy as well as its resident dream boat.
And Vivian Wu’s character, the scientist Lu, hails from China and provides a formidable counterpoint to Emma in some of the show’s direst moments. As the only other mother on the ship, Lu understands Emma in a way her other colleagues do not. But the two women hail from different cultures, which can affect the way they view their mission. Although Lu can be hard on Emma, Away never casts her as a villain; instead it creates empathy for both characters and their perspectives.
“That’s what’s fascinating about the international space station,” Goldberg said. “There are people from all different countries, and those political lines sort of disappear up there.”
Over and over, the team must confront life-threatening perils—from water shortages, to mechanical failures, to, I can’t repeat this enough, a part of someone’s actual foot falling off, which apparently can really happen in space. As they do, their bonds become ever-stronger—and for those who need just a little bit of romance, there are indeed shades of lust that, if there’s any God on this doomed Earth, will be explored in Season 2.
Nothing is official, but should the series receive a second season, Goldberg said she’d return to the core principles of season one—the zeal for exploration and newness.
“No one has set foot on this planet before,” Goldberg said. “These people would be the first people. And [we’d] go about it the same way we went at season one—which is to do it based in truth, what we know.”
“Obviously there’s more liberty cause no one’s ever been there… but it’s so thrilling to think about this first set of explorers,” Goldberg said. “And maybe there’ll be a kiss.”